WASHINGTON (CN) - Attorneys urged the D.C. Circuit to revive claims that federal prisons single out Muslim inmates for isolation units where their communications face 24-7 surveillance.
The Center for Constitutional Rights brought a complaint over the practice six years ago on behalf of Yassin Muhiddin Aref and other inmates whom the U.S. Bureau of Prisons placed in two experimental segregation units it established in Terre Haute, Ind., and in Marion, Ill., between 2006 and 2008, without public notice.
Though Muslims represent only 6 percent of the total general U.S. prison population, they make up 60 percent of prisoners housed in segregated CMUs, shorthand for communication-management units, the center's attorney Rachel Meeropol argued in court Tuesday.
Meeropol said inmates stay in CMUs for an average of three to five years, whereas disciplinary administrative segregation typically lasts one to four weeks.
"This experience of segregation in a minority religion unit is a very atypical experience," Meeropol said. "This is not something a prisoner could expect to experience in the normal course of being incarcerated."
Tuesday's appeal to a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit came nearly one year to the day that a federal judge dismissed Aref's suit, which challenges the hardships that "haphazard and retaliatory" CMU assignments impose on prisoners.
"My clients are low- and medium-security prisoners with clean disciplinary records who were singled out among hundreds of thousands of federal prisoners for segregation in a Communication Management Unit," Meeropol told the panel.
In addition to keeping inmates in the dark about the reasons for their CMU assignments, the federal prison system also denies inmates a viable avenue by which to seek relief, Meeropol added.
Prisoners in CMUs get eight hours of noncontact visiting time per month, and two 15-minute prescheduled phone calls per week, totals that the Bureau of Prisons doubled in 2010.
A brief Meeropol filed with the D.C. Circuit in October quotes lead plaintiff Aref as likening his deprivation of physical contact with his children during the 47 months he spent in a CMU as a "kind of torture."
Though general-population prisoners get 300 minutes of phone-call time, and up to 49 hours of contact visiting time every month, Justice Department attorney Carleen Zubrzycki said this difference is not significant enough to warrant a protected liberty interest, or additional constitutional protections.
"Inmates in BoP placements do not have a right to privacy in their communications. They do not have a right to not be monitored," Zubrzycki told the appeals court Tuesday, abbreviating Bureau of Prisons.
Judge Sri Srinivasan interrupted when Zubrzycki called CMU monitoring similar to the monitoring in all Bureau of Prison facilities.
"Well there must be something distinctive about a CMU because that's why you have it," Srinivasan said.
Insisting that the difference of degree is "relatively small," Zubrzycki said CMUs greatly hamper the ease by which inmates circumvent communications monitoring.
Since Aref and his remaining co-plaintiffs have been released or transferred out of the CMUs, Zubrzycki also argued that the issue is moot now.
"There is no continuing ongoing injury as a result of those placements," she said.
To this point, meanwhile, Meeropol said that flawed information generated through Bureau of Prison procedures remains in her client's files, stigmatizing them.